I’ve been curious about the Surface RT/Surface Pro devices from Microsoft since they were first announced. I’ve owned many tablet/touchscreen type devices over the years, but nothing that truly felt like it could do everything I need all in one device.
Not until now.
There really hasn’t been a “useful” implementation of touchscreen on a Windows device. Sure, the support has been there since at least Windows XP, but the OS itself was never truly designed with it in mind, more of an afterthought than anything else. Then you have your iOS and Android devices — clearly made for touchscreen usage on mobile devices, but limited in their compatibility with many PC standards.
Then came Microsoft Windows RT and Windows 8. RT is, for those unfamiliar, a stripped-down version of Windows 8, designed more with mobile devices in mind. Typically running on low-power mobile chipsets like the NVidia Tegra series, which boast decent graphics capabilities and excellent battery life at the expense of CPU power and compatibility. RT can only run apps designed for the OS, and not legacy Windows applications. Windows 8 is the full-featured OS, based on Windows 7′s core code, which can run legacy programs (i.e. WinXP-Win7 software) as well as the newer RT apps.
With the new “Modern UI” interface (formerly called Metro), Windows 8 has been given a considerable overhaul to support touchscreen mobile devices. You can now buy tablets, laptops and PCs which all share the same common interface and can be navigated traditionally with keyboard and mouse, or via touchscreen. The Surface devices give you the choice of either/or, through the optional Touch and Type covers. The Touch cover is a very thin and light “snap-on” keyboard/trackpad using a spill-resistant, almost membrane-style interface. The keys and mouse buttons are touch-sensitive and virtually flat to the device, making it an excellent companion for travelling light — and doubling as a screen protector. The Type cover is slightly thicker, weighs in at 0.5lbs, but features mechanical keys and a “proper” touchpad + buttons for the mouse. The latter is mostly the preferred choice especially for gamers and anyone typing a considerable amount on the device. Beyond that, there is a full-size USB3.0 port for peripherals, as well as dual-band WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
I opted for the 128GB Surface Pro, and a white Touch cover. To be fair, I actually planned to buy the Type cover but it was sold out at the time. That said, I’m growing fond of the Touch, despite clearly having to make more effort to type – having virtually no physical feel to the keys makes it hard for your fingers to “remember” where they should rest.
So far, being that it’s only truly been just over 3 days since I purchased the device, I am quite impressed with Microsoft’s flagship mobile. The Pro features an Intel Core i5-3317U CPU at 1.7GHz, the same processor found in most popular Ultrabooks these days. Paired with 4GB of RAM, Intel HD 4000 graphics and a speedy 128GB SSD, the Surface easily keeps up with my ASUS VivoBook which happens to feature very similar hardware, but in a much heavier and larger frame.
The Pro also features a crystal-clear and bright full 1080P screen, which so far has been a delight to watch HD videos on. In Desktop apps some things can be hard to see due to the high resolution and small screen, but much of this is alleviated by the default 125% or 150% scaling options. I mostly run my screen somewhere between the 10-20% mark — it’s that bright. One tip I’ll say right away, is to set your CPU state to a max of around say 60-70% on battery life, to extend your usage while off AC power. The Surface Pros’ biggest drawback is a “measly” 5 hours average battery life. If you consider the power these machines have, 5 hours is really nothing to scoff at — even the low-powered Atom-based netbooks don’t give much more than that on standard batteries.
The Surface Pro is also surprisingly capable for multimedia and gaming uses. Blockbuster titles like World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Minecraft, Guild Wars 2, and Diablo III to name but a small few, will actually run at respectable frame rates and reasonably high detail on these portable beasts.
With all that said, there are certainly some gripes with the Surface. One of my biggest fears with such an expensive piece of hardware is it getting stolen, a fear not at all helped by the lack of a Kensington Lock socket. There is no way that I know of, to securely lock down the device. Also, the likelihood of it getting scratched and scuffed is a very real threat on the backside of the device. I’ve already noticed some small scratches from setting the Surface down on a table, shifting it around for better viewing angles etc. Speaking of viewing angles, the Surface has a built-in kickstand to prop the device up — a great idea, but would have been much better if you could adjust the viewing angle. The Surface can be a bit awkward to type with on my lap, between the upright screen angle and the tiny Touch cover flexing without a solid base to sit on.
Also, the sound, while pretty clear and decent, can be on the quiet side. Listening to music via Xbox Music service is loud and clear, but I find myself struggling to hear YouTube videos even with all volume settings to max. This is partly because of the side-firing speakers which share the area where the Surface Pro’s cooling system vents out. Front-firing speakers would’ve been a much better choice IMO.
So what do I think of the Surface Pro so far?
It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s one of the best efforts to combine all of these technologies into a portable, touchscreen device that I have ever had the pleasure of using. My Asus Transformer Prime convertible tablet has been collecting dust as its novelty quickly wore off; it will be sold off in favour of the Surface, which does everything I ever wanted my Android devices to do in the first place and then some. The same fate is likely for most of my other mobile devices and laptops. The simple fact is, as awesome as those devices are, they just can’t compare to a full-fledged highly-portable Windows device when it comes to getting serious work done. They’re great for web-browsing, watching videos and playing Angry Birds, but when it comes down to business, you really need a “real” computer, and the Surface fits the bill. I fumbled desperately with my Nexus 7 at a work training seminar, trying to take notes and follow along with web content, because I chose not to lug my heavy laptop with me – I wouldn’t think twice before tossing the Surface in my side-bag on the way to a meeting or social gathering.
And hey, at least it’s not another iPad.
By the way, this entire article was typed on my Surface, using the Touch cover, using the full WordPress web interface. Something I never enjoyed doing on any of my iOS or Android devices in the past. This thing rocks.